Leverage restoration to pass Ryukyu culture to younger generations

It is a legacy that symbolizes the history and culture of Okinawa. Traditional techniques and crafts must be passed on to the next generation through the reproduction of unique roof tiles and walls.

Restoration work has begun on Shuri Castle in Naha, whose structures were destroyed by fire in October 2019, including the Seiden main hall.

Shuri Castle was the royal palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom that flourished from the 15th to 19th centuries, and the ruins of the castle are registered on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

Before it was destroyed by fire, it was the core of Okinawa tourism, attracting 2.8 million visitors annually. More than ¥5.5 billion has been donated to Okinawa Prefecture from all over Japan for the restoration, proving that many people wish to see the castle restored to its former glory as soon as possible.

The restoration of the main hall, the center of the castle, will cost about ¥12 billion and is scheduled for completion in 2026. After that, reconstruction of other facilities will follow. The cost will be covered by the central government, but donations will also be used.

Shuri Castle burned down during the Battle of Okinawa in the final days of World War II and was restored in 1992. The challenge will be the extent to which the castle can be reconstructed to resemble its original appearance, taking the most recent research findings into account.

In the latest restoration work, the paint materials will be changed from the previous restoration to more accurately reproduce the color of the walls in the ancient era. To create the red roof tiles unique to Okinawa, tiles damaged in the fire will be crushed and reused.

Efforts will also be made to implement “observable restoration,” with a visitors space to be established where members of the public can watch the work in progress. This will not only respond to the feelings of people who donated money, but is also likely to attract the interest of tourists in general.

Skilled craft workers’ techniques, such as roof-tiling and lacquering, are essential for the restoration work and for maintenance after its completion.

However, the number of surviving people who took part in the restoration work 30 years ago is shrinking, and they are aging. It is important for the craftspeople involved in the latest efforts to pass their traditional skills to the younger generation through the current project.

Restoring the paintings, calligraphy, ceramics and other works found in the castle is sure to require a prolonged effort. There are 281 pieces of Ryukyu lacquerware that were seriously damaged by heat and water, and it is expected to take at least 20 years to restore all of them.

Very few artisans are capable of restoring lacquerware designated as cultural properties. Mastering the technique is said to take five to 10 years. More educational and training opportunities must be created to foster successors to these skills.

Shuri Castle is regarded as “the heart and soul of the people in Okinawa Prefecture,” and it must not be lost to fire again.

Based on the bitter lessons learned, sprinklers — which were not previously available — will reportedly be installed, and surveillance cameras will be deployed to detect signs of fire even on the darkest of nights. Training must continue to take advantage of the latest equipment, and all possible measures must be taken to prevent fires.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Nov. 27, 2022)